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Cowboys Film Breakdown: The Good & Bad Of A Defensive Collapse

Not going to have a big introduction for this post. What follows is a fairly lengthy breakdown of several key plays from the Cowboys and Bears game. This week, it's five plays in total: one offense, one special teams and three defensive plays.

Some of you have asked about using videos instead of high-res photos. I prefer the photos myself as this gives us a chance to really study crucial moments within a play that typically lasts between five and seconds in duration. This type of study is also done by the coaches in the film room, who go back and forth, frame by frame when breaking down plays for their players.

After the jump, our film breakdown from the Cowboys vs. Bears.

Click on each photo for a larger, high-res version.


The situation: The Cowboys have just allowed a long touchdown drive to the Bears after taking a 14-10 lead. Now down 17-14, the Cowboys are driving down the field and have reached midfield right around the two-minute warning. After two incomplete passes, it's now 3rd and 10 from the Chicago 46.


The Cowboys are lined up in a traditional "11" formation with Felix Jones in the backfield and Jason Witten covering up the left tackle. The only exception to this formation is that Martellus Bennett is lined up in the slot with Roy Williams and Dez Bryant split wide. The Bears are playing man coverage on 3rd and 10 and are pressed on the receivers, with their safeties back in their traditional "two-deep" zone.


On the snap of the ball, Witten releases inside of the left defensive end with Doug Free easily picking up the edge rush. Brian Urlacher reacts to Witten who does a small fake with his head to make it appear he's running a seam route. The corners press the receivers off the line while Martellus Bennett draws the attention of the third DB.


As Jason Witten makes his hard cut, right at the first down marker, Tony Romo begins his throw. This was the throw the play was designed for, to draw the underneath coverage away and allow the Cowboys to run a timing route to Witten. Notice how just as Romo is releasing the ball, Witten has made is cut and is just now turning back.


From a better angle, you can get a better feel for how the play was run. Witten makes a clean release off the snap and is supposed to run a ten-yard timing route, turning and catching the ball just as he comes out of his break. His route pushes Urlacher to the inside before breaking to the outside.


As Romo releases the ball, you can see Witten has turned out of his break. By the flight of the ball, apparently Romo expected Witten to cut and stop, like they've done before. Instead, Witten pushes his break a bit shallow and draws away from Urlacher.


Here is where things go wrong. The ball gets to Witten just as he's coming out of his break, perfectly timed. Yet Romo's pass is to the back shoulder of Witten who has actually cut his route a bit shallow in anticipation of how tight Urlacher had coverage. This is a play he and Romo have run countless times before and they have perfect timing, but this time Romo placed the ball where Witten wasn't expecting it.


From the reverse angle, you can see Witten has his head turned in plenty of time to catch the ball coming out of the break. He's still low, however after pushing down in his cut harder than normal to draw Urlacher off the route.



This where the Ball hits Witten. Right on his back shoulder and just over his upper forearm. Just two plays prior the Cowboys ran this exact same route with Witten and the pass was nearly in the exact same spot. That play, like this one, resulted in Witten waving at the ball as it came to him and batting it up in the air.

This is something that Witten has a habit of doing when the pass is a bit high. He has incredible hands and is a fantastic route runner but those wild waves at the ball are a quarterback's worst nightmare.

Now, of course we'd like for Romo to put the ball right on Witten's numbers. Yet in the NFL, with the game moving at this speed, it's tough to fault a quarterback for missing a target by about 2 feet. This was just an unfortunate occurrence of a player making an adjustment his quarterback wasn't expecting.

Unfortunate? Yes. Bad throw? Not exactly.


The situation: Trailing 3-0, the Cowboys have just held the Bears to a three-and-out deep in their own territory. Dez Bryant steps in as returner as a decent kick should result in a good chance for a return.


As Bryant fields the punt, we see just how much space he has to work with along the left sideline. This was not a good kick, showing exactly how a punter can "out-kick" his coverage unit. Notice that the Cowboys also have blockers easily in place, with Gerald Sensabaugh providing the key block on the return.


Bryant faces one free defender, with Tashard Choice working to get inside for the block. Bryant makes a slight hesitation to the outside before exploding through the hole.


Here you can see, as Bryant accelerates through the hole, that the Cowboys have a wall of blocker built. Jason Williams Leon Williams provides another key block that allows Bryant to get free along the sideline. From there, he's gone.


Better angle, giving you an idea of what Bryant was seeing as he fielded the punt. Sensabaugh and Choice are working on their blocks, forming the hole through which Bryant will work.


The moment of slight hesitation, that allows Choice to make his block. This is where Bryant shows of his incredible acceleration and vision while running.

Unlike some of the punt returners we've seen try their hand in the past, Bryant makes his decision early and goes as fast as he can for it. This was what was great about Patrick Crayton; he made his decision and he hit the hole. No dancing, no east and west running. The difference is that Bryant is a much faster runner with absolutely incredible acceleration.


This is a series of plays by the Cowboys defense. We show the good and what was working early in the game, then we get into how the Bears adjusted and exploited two very, very costly mental mistakes by the Cowboys defense.

The situation: 2nd and 5, second play of the game. Matt Forte has just finished a five-yard run and the Bears regroup with a three-wide, "11" formation with a tight end split wide.


The Cowboys are playing press coverage here, with Sensabaugh playing man on the tight end that has split wide. Alan Ball is the lone safety playing back as the cornerbacks are pressed up hard on the receivers. Keith Brooking and Bradie James are lined up traditionally with Anthony Spencer initially dropping back as if he'll be in coverage.


Just as the ball is being snapped, Spencer attacks the line of scrimmage. The Cowboys did this multiple times against the Bears, especially early on, disguising which edge the rush will come from. The delayed inside blitzes from the Redskins game were virtually gone. Notice where Spears is lined up, between the tight end and right tackle.


As the ball is snapped, Greg Olson releases cleanly. The right tackle blocks down on Spears who has rushed his outside edge, and Bradie James tracks Olson off the snap. Keith Brooking shadows Matt Forte out of the backfield.

This allows a free release by Spencer, while DeMarcus Ware easily beats the left tackle on the play.


The Cowboys play "meet at the quarterback". This was the perfect play call, as the Cowboys played man coverage, not allowing a quick throw against the blitz and giving Spencer the opportunity to get a free release against the quarterback.

This is what the Cowboys did so well with the start the game, playing an aggressive defense with great confidence and they had the Bears completely off balance. After the Cowboys turned the ball over in their own territory, the defense stood tall and actually forced the Bears back a bit on the series. An unnecessary roughness penalty against Brooking offset a holding call against the offense, but the defense stood tall.

Two series later, things wouldn't go as well.

The situation: The Cowboys have just taken a 7-3 lead following Dez Bryant's punt return. After forcing two straight three-and-outs by the Bears, the Cowboys try a pooch kick and give the Bears great starting position. A short pass for no gain gives the Bears 2nd and 10 from their own 42.


The Bears line up four wide with a lone tailback behind Cutler. The Cowboys initially show man coverage, on the right, with the Cowboys playing zone on the left. Orlando Scandrick initially lines up pressed against Devin Hester, who is in the slot. Bradie James follows Earl Bennett (#80) as he goes in motion across the formation.


Bennett immediately goes back in motion to his initial spot, offset just behind the receiver to the offenses right. Bradie James, inexplicably, follows Bennett back to the left and gets behind Keith Brooking. At the same time, Scandrick has moved down and has given away his edge blitz. The man coverage by Jenkins to the top, combined with Newman and Brooking apparently ready to play zone on the bottom, leaves an incredibly wide open area for Hester.

Cutler stares this down the entire time.


Apparently Bradie James forgot that Scandrick was blitzing. That is the ONLY explanation for what happened here. Brooking is playing Bennett, Newman is playing Knox but Bradie James is all alone in No Man's Land as the ball is snapped. He's the only player on defense that shifted and he appeared overly concerned with Bennett.

If there are just two receivers to the right side of the offense, and Brooking and Newman are set in coverage, what was the point in tracking Bennett so closely?

James immediately realizes what has happened as he watched Hester get a free release off the line. What's worse is that James didn't even make the tackle; Brooking chased Hester down.

That led to this:


Very next play. The Cowboys are once again playing 3 cornerbacks, 1 safety as the Bears go four wide with an empty backfield. The Cowboys are playing well off the line of scrimmage, not the press coverage that has worked so well so far, and the safety (Alan Ball) is lined up at the same spot from the LOS as the cornerbacks.


Just before the snap of the ball, both James and Brooking show a heavy inside blitz. The This leaves a large hole right in the middle of the defense with no safety playing back. This is looking like a disaster already.

If you remember to earlier in the game, Greg Olsen released cleanly off the snap inside of Spencer; this allowed Spencer to get a free path to Cutler. This happens once more, but this time there is no linebacker ready to cover Olsen.


Surprise! The Cowboys don't blitz. Instead, both Brooking and James step back and flail at the ball that is sailing over their heads.

Spencer has an open path to the quarterback, but Olsen has a clear path right between the final layer of the defense.


Here's what is even better. As Olsen catches the ball and streaks past Alan Ball, both Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick have their back turned to the play and don't realize the ball has already been thrown. They had perfect coverage on their receivers but the play happened so fast they never had time to react.

Touchdown.  Bears with the instant momentum and they've found a weakness in the defense they'll exploit for the rest of the game.

I don't know if these two plays were just horrible design or a case of missed or mistaken assignments. In both cases, it was the inside linebacker who failed to adjust to the offensive play, resulting in two very easy completions for Cutler.

It doesn't matter what sort of pass rush you get if the quarterback only needs a one step drop to complete 40 yard passes.


What the heck happened on that 59 yard pass to Johnny Knox? I only need two frames to show you.


The Bears are three wide, with Olsen and Forte in the backfield in a max protect formation. Newman is playing press coverage on the right, with the Cowboys lining up Orlando Scandrick in the slot and Jenkins playing back off the ball against Hester.

The Cowboys have two safeties, who are playing very shallow on a 3rd and 15 and are apparently focused on just keeping the play in front off them. They don't react at all the route that Knox runs, a short hesitation off the line followed by a simple go.


The Cowboys play zone on the left, with Scandrick releasing Knox to cover Hester short. If you notice (circled) both Alan Ball and Mike Jenkins are flat footed while Johnny Knox has a full head of steam right through their zone coverage.

This has rarely happened under Wade Phillips and it was surprising to see here now. Bad coverage? Horrible scheme design?

Whatever it is, don't use it again.

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